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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Nick Johnson catapults Arizona into Pac-12 Tournament championship

Colin Darland
Colin Darland / Daily Wildcat

LOS ANGELES — Brendon Lavender first met Nick Johnson when he was 16 years old.

At Mesa Mountain View High School, Lavender was one of the top underclassmen in Arizona, while, at first glance, Johnson appeared to be nothing more than a scrawny, 13-year-old middle schooler.

Then Johnson jumped.

“When I met him he was a little kid and he was doing 360 dunks,” Lavender recalled of his teammate. “It was crazy.”

After Lavender saw Johnson’s hops he knew the Gilbert, Ariz., product would do big things one day, but he never imagined the two would be playing on the same team.

Yet six years have passed by since that 16-year-old high school star witnessed that undersized guard jump out of the gym, and on Friday night in Staples Center, it was Johnson who played the role of superstar, putting Arizona on his back to catapult the Wildcats to victory and into the Pac-12 Tournament Championship.

Johnson’s numbers — nine points on 3-for-11 shooting, five assists, three rebounds, one block and one steal — don’t jump off the page, but he led the Wildcats to a 14-2 run to open the second half and turn a 34-27 halftime deficit into a 41-36 lead in a matter of minutes.

During Arizona’s early second-half run Johnson scored six points, dished out two assists and accounted for all 14 of UA’s points. Lavender, who knows Johnson’s game as well as anyone on the team, wasn’t the least bit surprised.

“I’ve seen all he can do throughout games, I’ve seen his ups, I’ve seen his downs, I know that’s what he’s capable of doing,” Lavender said. “He hasn’t played like that for a while and for him to play like that in that key moment is huge for us especially coming into the second half. When he was aggressive like that we were like ‘alright, we’re going to get this win.’”

What was most impressive about Johnson’s performance was the fact that he played major minutes at the point guard spot as he handled Oregon State’s pressure defense and pushed the tempo with fellow freshman Josiah Turner in Tucson serving a suspension.

“Nick played huge. He completely ran the team tonight. As a freshman who doesn’t play the point guard I think that’s pretty impressive,” said UA senior guard Kyle Fogg. “As he continues to work I think he’s going to be a great point guard in the future and it was definitely one of his best games at Arizona.”

Johnson, who came to Arizona as a four-star recruit from Nevada’s Findlay Prep, has had an up and down freshman season so far. He’s teased Arizona fans at times with huge performances followed by nights with little to offensive production.

But while Johnson’s jumper hasn’t always been working, and his aggression has lacked at times, he’s always contributed in some capacity – see four blocks against UCLA on Thursday.

“I thought yesterday he did a lot of things that don’t’ show up on the stat sheet that make you win,” Miller said of Johnson’s game against UCLA.

On Friday, Johnson’s contribution’s were crystal clear. Whether it was running the team, pushing it in transition, finishing at the rim or finding cutters, Johnson was everywhere.

“Today to me was one of the better games he’s played at Arizona,” Miller said. “He’s had bigger games scoring but he did so many valuable things.”

Johnson failed to deliver against ASU in Arizona’s worst loss of the season as he finished five points and four turnovers on 1-for-5 shooting. But two games later, right when Arizona needs him most, with no true point guard and the NCAA Tournament on the line, Johnson’s stepped up.

“He’s growing up fast,” Fogg said of Johnson, who he called a “little brother” and “one of my best friends.”

“I’ve been in the same position with not near as much pressure. There’s a lot of pressure for him, our team really needs him to play well,” Fogg added. “He’s getting better and better and I expect him to play well tomorrow.”

Thankfully for Arizona, Johnson’s not that 13-year-old anymore, as the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament hopes may have been squashed without him.

“It was just feeling good,” Johnson said. “We came here to get three and we didn’t make it any secret. There were some games during the regular season that we let go so we definitely came here to get three and get the championship and get in the tournament.”

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